Recently, lawmakers in Iowa penned a bill that, if passed, would have required cameras in every K-12 classroom in the state. These cameras would allow parents to livestream their children’s lessons throughout the school day. Meanwhile in Indiana, a bill would have required teachers to turn in a year’s worth of lesson plans in advance. Both failed to pass their respective state legislatures. But a flurry of other bills and laws restricting what educators can teach—or even say—about history, literature, race, sexuality and other topics are alive and well.
I’ve taught high school English for years. I also coach teachers and work with them to improve their instructional practices. It’s hard not to feel personally targeted by these efforts, and I question the motivations behind them, when they do far more to turn the classroom into a political battlefield than any teacher could. But I will assume sincerity when questioned about what is happening in my classroom. So if any lawmakers, parents or activist groups are curious, here’s what’s really going on.
Yes, I’m addressing topics outside of the curriculum.
Four years ago, my students came to class the day after a deadly mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The day before, I called a colleague to discuss the next day’s lesson. We shared the same group of AP students and we agreed we should give them space to talk. As the bell rang, one student blurted out, “Miss, are we going to talk about what happened?”
My students were used to talking in class but that day, we passed around a giant purple minion doll as students shared their thoughts and feelings, raw and unrehearsed. Sixteen- and 17-year-old students hugged the stuffed creature to their chests as they talked about how this shooting felt different, how they suddenly felt it could happen to them at their school. Then, talk of the events of the Parkland shooting turned to the problems revealed by mass shootings in schools.
While they talked, I passed around large post-its and markers so they could organize their thinking. Over the next few days, we read and analyzed the arguments of activists and politicians who contributed to the national dialogue, including Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland survivor, a teenager, and a student, using her formidable rhetorical strategies to “call BS” on lawmakers. The class created problem-solution maps and proposed ideas. These lessons were not designed to foist my political agenda onto their young malleable minds, but rather to give them the opportunity to find their own voices and cultivate their rhetorical skills.
Yes, I’m deviating from my lesson plans.
As teachers, we teach students not subjects. I don’t teach English language development, I teach Maria, Alex, Yun Mei and Linh. Although my own professional growth as an educator has been shaped by educational research, brain science and cultural theorists, my only real guiding principle has been, “Teach the students in front of you.” By this, I mean I am continually letting go of my ideal sequence of learning activities and modifying and adjusting according to what my students show me.
In my early years, I recall painstakingly working through an excerpt from the Lois Lowry novel, “Number the Stars,” about a young girl’s struggle to help her Jewish friend escape Nazi-occupied Copenhagen during WWII. One student, Liling (a pseudonym), raised her hand and pointed to a word in the introductory paragraph, “What is this word?” She pointed to the word “holocaust.” I allowed her to translate the word online and then reversed the translation to see what it would say: “massacre.”
I asked the other students if they had heard or read the word holocaust in their other classes here or in their schooling before coming to the United States. My Vietnamese, Central American, Mexican and Chinese students all had different answers. I knew that the histories of their home countries were no strangers to massacres but I suddenly realized that my understanding of the holocaust, my understanding of the story’s context, was grounded in the American education system and the choices of individuals in that system. We paused our reading. I abandoned the lesson plan and we began to build a collective understanding of these new vocabulary words, holocaust and genocide, and the meaning these words carry in stories, in histories around the world. We would eventually return to “Number the Stars,” but with a more robust understanding. The lesson plan would still be there.
Yes, I’m performing duties outside of my job description.
During distance learning, many parents observed their child’s online classes. Peering over shoulders, parents may have seen teachers sharing their screens, sharing slide presentations or talking to the class. But that’s not the same as placing a camera in a classroom. A camera might find me balancing on top of a desk peering at my overhead projector and wondering if that whirring sound is indicative of an imminent explosion. You might see me sanitizing tables, searching for extra charging cords for student devices, and collecting the daily detritus (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags, scraps of paper and left-behind notebooks) from the floor and desks. You would also see me doing my best to mediate interpersonal conflict, offer advice about how best to communicate with other teachers, connect students to needed mental health services and find out as much as I can about my students.
What a camera in the classroom may not capture are the hours and hours teachers work to actually accomplish the tasks outlined in their job descriptions. The camera may not capture teachers participating in voluntary professional development opportunities to help them get better at what they do. The camera may not record teachers cheering on their students at basketball games, choir concerts and science fairs. There may be no video footage of teachers talking to counselors and other teachers about their shared students in an effort to better meet that student’s unique learning needs, and the camera may or may not capture the toll it takes on teachers to do this meaningful work.
The reality is the education system in America is already pretty transparent. Teachers give syllabi with course goals. Parents and guardians already communicate with teachers, and students are often very vocal about what is happening in their classes. I am glad to see these bills fail to gain traction. But we must examine what lies underneath it all.
I know in this time of uncertainty, we want some things to be certain. In a time of shifting definitions and “alternative facts,” we want math to be math (or maths if you’re British). We want at least one part of society to feel stable and predictable. If you as a parent or a politician are looking to find some certainty and consistency in the classroom when you tune into a live feed, I hope you find it. But as a parent and educator, I hope to see teachers who are responsive to their students’ unique learning needs, responsive to their social and emotional development and to the mutual love of learning.
I often hear people say that a teacher’s job is to prepare students for “the real world.” I have always bristled at this kind of language. My students already live in the real world. It is insulting to their experience to say they do not. My job is to prepare them to change the world, to navigate the unpredictable with critical thinking and resilience.
I’m not sure a camera or a curriculum guide could ever truly capture that.